We've almost reached the end of 2011, and what a year it's been. I hope it brought you much success and growth. Here's to another year well done. From all of us at OWW, we hope you have a wonderful holiday and a productive new year.
As always, contact us if you have any questions, publication announcements, or ideas for improving the OWW Newsletter.
Maria Zannini, newsletter editor
newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com
Write something about a character who's sick. Maybe it's chronic, maybe it's terminal, maybe it's just a cold -- a mild annoyance to give the story some colour and reality. Maybe the disease is part of the genre element of the story, or maybe the genre element is something that helps the character overcome the disease.
Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don't forget to stretch yourself. If you normally write fantasy, try SF. If you've never tried space opera, here's your chance. It doesn't have to be great. It's all about trying new things. There's no word limit, no time limit, no nothin'. Just have fun.
Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Maria (newsletter (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com). This month's challenge was sent in by Lindsay Kitson.
The Editors' Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories--science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories -- receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.
This issue's reviews are written by Resident Editors Jeanne Cavelos, Karen Meisner, Elizabeth Bear, and Karin Lowachee. The last four months of Editors' Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop. Go to the "Read, Rate, Review" page and click on "Editors' Choices."
Congratulations to the current Editors' Choice authors!
THE BOOK MIDGET, Chapter 6, by Arlene Ang
Arlene Ang's The Book Midget is a very strange little story, and I mean that as a compliment. This is a madcap adventure in the grand tradition of humorous fantasy--Robert Aspirin, Terry Pratchett--and Ms. Ang has the inventive, gonzo creativity to keep it engaging.
The characters are engaging, the worldbuilding weird and wonderful, and the protagonist himself a quite delightfully odd creature: a murdered dragon reincarnated into a stack of animate sorcerous books and a pair of boots, all presumably crafted from his hide. His sidekick and foil is a bald, foulmouthed princess to whom he is magically "bookbound." (Puns are always grotesque, but they are also often funny.)
In this chapter, the author does an excellent job of keeping the action flowing. She sets up and increases conflict, allows her characters to have conflicting desires and goals, and in general keeps both the banter and the action moving. She's also very good at the sort of illogical logicality that madcap comedy--whether fantastical or mundane--demands. When her book-dragon hybrid, who uses the letters on his spines as a means of sensory perception, "rolls his is" it's instantly evident what the author means, and it's worth a chuckle.
Ms. Ang has some problems with sentence construction and rhetorical flow: I'd urge her to pay closer attention to the antecedents of her pronouns, and in making sure each sentence and each paragraph transitions smoothly into the next. It's easier to keep readers engaged, sinking into the narrative, if they are led through it in a logical and linear fashion. Not being a particularly logical or linear person myself, I do recognize the challenge here, but transitions are a learned skill and practicing them in all their forms (from paragraph hooks to unity of imagery) will only ease readers' journey through a book this breezy and fast-paced.
While inventive, I do have a concern that the world Ms. Ang presents is overly cartoonish. A great deal of the comedy in this narrative relies on sight gags, and while Ms. Ang is a strongly visual and descriptive writer--alas, sight gags are not the strong suit of textual narrative. While she does an excellent job of describing the accordioning of the books as her poor protagonist dangles below a trap door, it's a little self-conscious in this context. Funny writing is funny--witty--in its own regard. Comedy that relies exclusively on the visual might be better served as a script.
I did find that author's rigorous understanding of the details of her world very grounding, however. It becomes something of a running gag that the protagonist knows how many letters are on his spines, how many are eyes or mouths, how many windows are in a building and in what orientation they lie. That created an interesting tension with the cartooniness. For me, at least, that helped ease the suspension of disbelief problems caused by a walking stack of books as a protagonist.
The characterization is quite broad, and while often this is effective--especially in a humorous setting--I find that I would like a little more nuance. Even in a silly book, readers need to be able to bond with the protagonist, to feel real concern and excitement on his behalf. For that to happen, readers need to be engaged with his desires and fears. While Ms. Ang does an excellent job of letting her dragonish pile of books want things, and struggle to get them--he has really good agency for an animate heap of grimoirs--the emotional connection might be better if the humor were a little less slapstick.
There are some truly tender moments here: when the princess says to the dragon, "Maybe when I'm gone, you'll be free." I'd like to see those played up, brought into more counterpoint and more equal balance with the comedy.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of THE SEA THY MISTRESS
WHERE MADMEN RULE, Chapter 1, By Eugene Hayman
This lively planetary-based space opera uses first person and a breezy pace to create an engaging character voice. This is all set early by a great opening line:
The first time I ever heard Theresa Seybold's voice she was screaming-- at two o'clock in the morning in the bowels of the Hyumbarian Old Quarter.
Throughout the chapter there are nice turns of phrases, original similes and imagery, but also some exaggeration that only borderline works:
A second round of screaming chopped off abruptly. Curiosity got the better of my instinct for self-preservation and I poked my head out in time to catch the tail-end of a riot.
Using "chopped off" is a great way to imply violent interruption, but using "riot" gives the image of more than a handful of people involved in a scrum, so there is a moment of reading whiplash where you have the image of an actual riot in the mind, but that turns out to be wrong. Since the pace is pretty brisk all the way through, you don't want the reader to stumble over anything, and if they do slow down, it should be to provide telling details (information about the world, character, and/or plot that provides pointed necessary understanding). But the narrative does dive right in and the occasional slipping in of details of the world is also effective and not too intrusive. The story wouldn't lose anything if more of those world details are provided, though (more on that later).
The humor is used to good effect to draw character and make the action lively:
Then he resumed his cautious, sideways approach, which only halted after I snatched up a third can and began my heartfelt impersonation of a terrified person.
This especially amps up once he meets Theresa. Again, as the action scene progresses, the author can be more precise, as the prose is already breezy - for example, who exactly is holding this second knife:
Even so, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach doubled as a second knife materialized.
Akin to that is the need to not get carried away with the wittiness, which can sacrifice effect. Considering the often snappy prose, this threat can be better:
"Drop it or you're gonna wake up counting some doctor's fingers!"
It doesn't roll off the tongue easily and at this point in an ‘action' scene, you want things to be tight. Let him say something that's very threatening so he can at least come off like a badass (which is what he's trying to do).
There is some awkward and ambiguous phrasing sometimes:
A thin layer of cerebral cortex, laid down over a simian forebrain, does not a fully evolved entity make.
I watched the men limp back into the main corridor and disappear before examining the woman.
His examination of her, in borderline romance novel terms, is pretty creepy considering she was just being assaulted and he saved her. Now he cops a visual feel on her before helping her further? Up until now I liked the character's sarcasm and wit, but now he's comes off as a total creeper. Maybe once she's awake and they're interacting and on the move, he could notice her beauty and it won't come off like he's two seconds away from sexually assaulting her.
Again, sometimes the breeziness of the prose sacrifices details or necessary information:
"Okay," she said, slowly. "I remember now... I think...
Was she suffering from short-term amnesia just now? It's unclear and brings the reader up short as we now have to parse it.
It's also unclear how Mike got to know Theresa's name, as there was no introduction, but suddenly he's using it in the narrative. Other things are also unclear; when he hands over a handkerchief, it's painfully obvious that we have no visual image of him in the slightest, so there are curious blank spots that could be filled to provide a more complete picture of the world and the characters. Ideally this can be threaded through from the word go.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
Author of THE GASLIGHT DOGS, BURNDIVE and CAGEBIRD
"Peck on the Cheek and a Ticket to Mars" by Noelle Campbell
The light dusting of dystopian future envisioned in this story provides just enough backdrop to set up an emotionally fraught premise, which then resolves into a more romantic path. Julie is pregnant with a potentially deaf child when genetic "defects" are weeded out through state-enforced abortion. She's being helped to escape off-planet to start a new life on Mars. Having left her husband over the pregnancy issue, she is now getting paired up with a strange man so they can pretend to be a married couple for purposes of immigration. The center of this story is the relationship between these two strangers, and the main character's forward motion out of isolated fear into a sense of companionship and hope.
First, let's look at the language. Small word choices can make a big difference in how well a story reads, and this draft will need some careful combing through. Generic words like variants on "is/was/has" or an overuse of "it" just clutter up the narrative with empty excess. Look for weak words like those to replace with stronger verbs which bring flavor and energy to the story. A lot of these sentences need to be untangled until they flow smoothly. For example, "one thing was still true" reads stronger as "one thing remained true." "It has everything you will need in it" can become "It contains everything you'll need." Try speaking every line aloud with an ear for words that don't sound vital, to find what can be streamlined.
I'm noticing some awkwardness around the use of prepositions. Those little words sort elements of the story into proper relationships, and must be taken seriously! Here are some examples of where prepositions get jumbled:
That's when she saw the message she had been looking for scrawled in inconspicuous letters on the back of the seat the pole was attached to...
That sentence isn't even finished yet, and it's already pretty tangled! Sorted into a more straightforward structure, it could look like this:
That's when she saw the message she'd been looking for. It was scrawled in inconspicuous letters on the back of the seat, where the pole was attached.
Here's another one:
The woman sat near Julie, slipping the bag off her shoulder and in the seat between them.
By overlooking the need for an accurate preposition here, this sentence has left this moment vague and faintly confusing. Adjust the preposition to be more accurate, and the image immediately sharpens:
The woman sat beside Julie, slipping the bag off her shoulder and onto the seat between them.
A note on Mars and its need for women. I often see SF stories making little in-joke references. There are many ways to pull that off successfully, but if the joke just sits there flatly, it can feel like the author is pointlessly amusing herself, or constructing a sort of shaggy-dog story around a cute phrase. In this case, I'm not sure how intentionally the phrase "Mars needs women" was used... but if a story is going to make use of it, there probably ought to be some tiny acknowledgement of the fact that it's a recognizable reference. It should be a tough line for a character to pull off with a straight face, and the fact that this character does so makes me mistrust the authenticity of that scene. Maybe the woman saying it could, for example, smile tightly as she says these words, letting us know that she knows that it's a phrase with history, even while she means it? This turns it into a (mild) joke the reader can share.
I wonder about Julia's state of mind as she embarks on this trip. She seems to have ditched her husband awfully easily, and while that clears the way for the new romance to bloom, her utter absence of thought or concern or emotion around the husband she's just left detracts from the integrity of this scenario. Maybe she never had much of a relationship with Carl, but without any clues about them, I have a hard time buying her as a woman who's just walked out on a long-term commitment to the father of her child-to-be. For us to believe in her relationship with either Carl or Dimitri, it seems more realistic that she would give a moment or two of thought given to the marriage she's left behind. Filling out some hints of such details can make the difference between a character feeling like a cardboard cut-out and a real person. Be aware that with a plot about forced termination of pregnancies deemed undesirable by the state, alongside futuristic governments that shut down churches, this can very easily come across as a political Message story. So it's extra important that the story be well-crafted enough to connect as a believable, fully fleshed-out work of imagination, rather than a screed. Each character needs enough of an individual life to come across as a unique person, not just a symbolic figure.
For the rest of this review, visit the Editor's Choice area of the OWW site!
--Karen Meisner, Editor, Strange Horizons
"Dogs Without Names" by Sarah Rudek
The title of this story immediately attracted me, and the distinctive child's voice drew me in. This short piece has some nice imagery, such as "It makes my room look orange, like a jack-o-lantern face and the tree branches at my window are like witch's hands." The story moves quickly and generates some good suspense, since we fear from the second paragraph that the father is a threat.
The main weak area in the story is the lack of a clear narrative structure. I'm not quite sure what story this is intended to be. One common structure for a short-short story is to reveal a striking situation. Such a story begins with things going on that the reader doesn't know about or doesn't understand the meaning of. The story ends with the revelation of what is going on or the revelation of the meaning of what is going on. "The Lottery" is a very famous example of this. I think this story intends to follow this structure, with the reader learning what is happening as June, the young viewpoint character, does.
Yet I wasn't clear at the end of the story what was happening or what had been revealed. June sees a bunch of men and werewolves in the barn. They seem to be fighting, and one werewolf has been wounded. The father seems eager to get something done, with only two hours left, and one of his friends has a gun. I thought that perhaps the father was holding werewolf fights, since we learned earlier that he holds dog fights. That's a very cool idea. But the description, dialogue, and action didn't all add up to support that theory, so I ended up thinking that the father had simply agreed to kill a bunch of werewolves. But I wasn't sure.
The "revealing a situation" structure is dependent upon the situation being revealed very clearly. Only then can it have impact. While I liked the story almost all the way through, I ended it disappointed and confused. If the father is indeed holding werewolf fights, then you need to show me a pit or cage with two werewolves inside, fighting. That is missing right now. I also need to see men betting, so I know how money is being generated, or I need to understand why someone would pay $40,000 for a night of werewolf fights--if it's just one person who really wants to see werewolves fighting, then he needs to be in a place of honor, watching the fight, and the other men present should be clearly working for the father. And I need to know why the werewolves would fight each other. Are they cooperating and getting a cut? Are they so violent that they will fight anyone or anything? Since werewolves are often shown in packs, cooperating with each other, it's not immediately clear that they would fight each other. They haven't been raised to fight like the father's pit bulls, as far as I know. If they are being threatened with death or shocked with cattle prods, that might explain it. The current description sounds like a bunch of men and werewolves standing amongst each other and fighting indiscriminately. If the werewolves have just been delivered and are being dragged toward cages, then I need to see that. It may sound like I'm asking for a lot, but all of this can be done in about the same amount of space that is currently spent describing what is in the barn; it just needs to hit the required points to make the revelation clear.
When the revelation wasn't clear, I thought that maybe the story was attempting a different structure, the more standard "protagonist struggles in a conflict that changes her." But the protagonist doesn't do that much struggling against her father, and she doesn't seem to change at the end.
If you can make the revelation clear, and make us feel the horror of that revelation--the horror of men being forced to fight--then this will be a very powerful story.
I'll briefly mention three other minor points. First, the comma usage is distracting. I thought commas had been left out to reflect June's voice, but sometimes commas are included and sometimes there not. I end up thinking that the author doesn't know how to use commas, which may or may not be true. You can find my explanation of comma rules here: http://www.odysseyworkshop.org/tips1.html. Second, the story overall could profit from more description. I particularly wanted to see the father more vividly. Finally, the story could use less telling and more showing. First person POV encourages telling, and this story has a number of telling sentences like "It is scary," "It is very weird," "this is much worse," and "It is okay." If these ideas can be conveyed instead by showing, they will be much more powerful.
I hope this is helpful. I enjoyed the story, and I think you can really pump up the impact with some revisions.
--Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of Odyssey
A review of WRITER'S COMPANION by Carlos Cortes and Renée Miller
I agreed to read and review Writer's Companion only because I've been a fan of Carlos Cortes' work since reading his novel The Prisoner. I met freelance writer Renée Miller by accident when I stumbled upon her snarky and all-too-perceptive blog. The collaboration works.
Writer's Companion is more encyclopedic knowledge than a quick reference guide. Be prepared to sit back, read, and ponder your writing and how you can improve it.
Every section is chocked full of so much information, I had to put the book down every few chapters just to digest what I had read. And while the data and opinions were valid and important, many times I found myself on information overload.
If I were to cite one fault, it's that it lumbers too long on particulars. The book is peppered with lengthy examples and conclusions that would make a criminal lawyer proud.
As an experienced writer, I prefer to get my information in bullet points. But newer writers would do well to put this book in their library. The explanations are so precise, it's like getting a creative writing course for pennies. This is a textbook, an educational tome for the serious writing student.
Where this book glowed for me started in Section 3: The Craft of Rewriting. From here to the very end, the guide crackled with a punch list every writer should have in his arsenal. I loved the text on writing thoughts, tightening POV, and analysis.
In Section 4: The Rules of Writing, it listed everything you should've learned when you were in grammar school, but might've since forgotten. In Section 6: The Toolbox, the templates, resources, and links are worth the price of the book alone.
I received this book in both digital and print format. The print version is clear, easy to read and nicely formatted. The PDF version was a little wonky on my e-reader when it got to tabs and columns. Illustrations didn't appear at all, while tabs and underlined words collapsed on one another. Switching to my desktop computer, the PDF displayed without any glitches. It was only the e-reader that seemed offended.
Digital publishers are notorious for bastardizing formats to fit its meat-grinder, so it didn't come as a surprise when the e-reader mangled the book's graphics. That's par for the course when it comes to e-readers. If you read off a computer, you shouldn't have any trouble.
Because of its size, I would advise buying the print book, not just for the ease in reading but because Writer's Companion is more like a bible than an ordinary writing book. This is private library material. You're going to want to refer to this book often if for nothing more than the generous resources and guides.
As I was doing my research to review this book, I discovered the authors also have a companion web site with the tools and templates showcased in the Writer's Companion, as well as a forum where you can discuss the book.
I was very pleased that this wasn't just another slap-dashed how-to book, but the hearts and souls of two seasoned writers-mongrel writers as they called themselves. To me, it was like downloading the total experience and education of writing craftsmen who have been in the trenches and lived to tell about it.
This was a labor of love and a passion for the craft. Buy the book. It's worth it.
Sarah Ahiers says: "'Hole Ridden' will be appearing in Dark Moon Digest #6, which should be available for purchase in early December. I'm super excited guys. It's nice to know that when I actually put in the work to get something published (this was the first story I actually submitted anywhere) it can happen. Thanks to Gary A. Braunbeck for his help when he chose it as an Editor's Choice review."
Aliette de Bodard has been busy. She writes: "TRANSTORIES, edited by Colin Harvey, contains my short pseudo-Chinese story ‘The Axle of Heaven.' The second story, the French fantasy called ‘Ys' appears in WOMEN WRITING THE WEIRD, published by Dog Horn Publishing. And StarShipSofa Stories Vol.3 contains my ‘Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders.'"
Nicole Cushing wrote: "Just wanted to let you know that my workshopped story ‘The Orchard of Hanging Trees' has been accepted by Pseudopod . Thanks to everyone on OWW who critted this story back in November and December of 2010 and validated its vision, while challenging me to make it even better than it was in the first drafts."
Karen Kobylarz emailed us to say: "I recently sold two stories, ‘Firstborn' and ‘Eye of Ra,' to Lorilei Signal--the October 2011 and January 2012 issues respectively. These stories will also be reprinted in Mystic Signals (November 2011 and February 2012 issues). Both stories were posted on the Workshop. Thanks to all who critiqued them!"
The Reviewer Honor Roll is a great way to pay back a reviewer for a really useful review. When you nominate a reviewer, we list the reviewer's name, the submission/author reviewed, and your explanation of what made the review so useful. The nomination appears in the Honor Roll area of OWW the month after you submit it, and is listed for a month. You can nominate reviewers of your own submissions or reviewers of other submissions, if you have learned from reading the review. Think of it as a structured, public "thank you" that gives credit where credit is due and helps direct other OWWers to useful reviewers and useful review skills.
Visit the Reviewer Honor Roll page for a complete list of nominees and explanatory nominations.
November 2011 Honor Roll Nominees
Reviewer: James Thomson
Submission: The Boy Who Could Step Sideways by Guarionex Sandoval
Submitted by: Guarionex Sandoval
Reviewer: Rob Gilliam
Submission: "In Heaven as it is on Earth" by Susan Cartwright
Submitted by: Susan Cartwright
Reviewer: Susan Cartwright
Submission: The Unbeliever by Zachary Kitchen
Submitted by: Zachary Kitchen
Reviewer: Laurence Pittenger
Submission: South to the Sticks by Esme Ibbotson
Submitted by: Kevin Moeini
Reviewer: Brian L Case
Submission: In Heaven as it is on Earth by Susan Cartwright
Submitted by: Susan Cartwright
Reviewer: Crash Froelich
Submission: Bringing Home the Good War, Part 3 by Dave Crosby
Submitted by: Dave Crosby
Mystery of the Tempest, by Sam Cameron (Bold Strokes Books, November 2011)
Twin brothers Denny and Steven Anderson love helping people and fighting crime alongside their sheriff dad on sun-drenched Fisher Key, Florida. Steven likes chasing girls. Denny longs to lose his virginity, but doesn't dare tell anyone he's gay. Steven has a secret of his own. He lied to everyone, including his own brother, about being accepted into SEAL training for the U.S. Navy.
On the day they graduate high school, the twins meet the handsome new guy in town, a military veteran with a chiseled body and mysterious past. Meanwhile Brian Vandermark, a gay transfer student from Boston, finds himself falling for closeted Denny but hampered by his shyness. When an antique yacht explodes in Fisher Key harbor, all three boys are caught up in a summer of betrayal, romance, and danger. It's the Mystery of the Tempest--and it just might kill them all.
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